TIFF Review: The Elephant Queen
By Nabeela Damji
Peabody and Emmy winning filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone premiered The Elephant Queen, a documentary narrated by Chitwel Ejiofor, about the lives of an Elephant family and their struggle to find salvation during a terrible drought.
“Do you remember when we had it all?” asks Ejiofor, as if channeling the inner thoughts of these beautiful creatures. Athena, a 50-year-old tusker, and matriarch, and her family, which include little super pest “Wei Wei”, who annoyingly tries to make friends with the herds newest member Mimi, splash around watering holes they’ve dug to prepare for a nourishing rainstorm. The elephants are an integral part of the ecosystem. Without them, other species wouldn’t be able to survive.
© Deeble & Stone | YouTube
The film also takes time to introduce other characters, or “neighbours” of the elephants, which include a foam frog mating party (great to watch at 9am). The frogs create tadpoles out of foam nests, that in turn feed the fish that populate the waterholes. Also included are Egyptian geese, and their chicks who leave their perch in search of new land. Although, one baby named Steven always shows up late to the party. Get it together Steven!
There are frogs who tuck away under the earth during the dry season, as well as a male tortoise who endures a VERY long walk with his new-found girlfriend before mating season (it’s good to get to REALLY know someone before you take that step). A dung beetle who rolls his prized Elephant dropping before a standoff between other dung beetles, is set to a perfect score of music.
Watch the Q&A with the The Elephant Queen directors here:
© TIFF Talks | YouTube
It seems as though everything is well in the Savannah. Until a drought forces Athena and her family out. There have been paths laid out for generations by Athena’s ancestors, and now she must lead her herd as they leave their home territory in search of refuge. As the matriarch, Athena must make difficult and life-threatening decisions that include starvation if they stay, and dehydration if they leave at the wrong time.
Timing is everything for Athena and her herd. The film is exceptionally moving and gut-wrenching at times, but Deeble and Stone did a fantastic job of integrating humor into different stories to create a balance.
Watch Mavericks: The Making of the Elephant Queen conference here:
© TIFF Talks | YouTube
The cinematography is stunning in this film. Deeble said after the film that in order for them to get extremely close shots of the animals, they placed metal boxes beside waterholes and waited inside to get up close shots, and shots of smaller creatures to get their perspective of what it was like living with these giant tuskers. In fact, Debble said he spent an entire month once in his metal box to get some of these incredible shots you see in the film. You can’t help but think to yourself “HOW did they get this shot?” when watching this film.
The Elephant Queen is a visually stunning and heartbreaking representation of Kenya’s decreasing Elephant population. It’s a stark reminder of when Africa belonged to them, and only them.
*Editor’s Note: The Elephant Queen as screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘18
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